With academic time in school being so pressured to include topics relevant to standardized tests, systematic Social, Emotional and Character Development (SECD) efforts are increasingly relegated to after-school time. The question is, should we be elated or cautious?
Typically, it will be students most at risk who will be attending after-school programs systematically. So after-school SECD is unlikely to reach the entire school population. But what about those children who are in greatest need? They might have the chance to have an SECD program delivered to them one or two times each week, which otherwise would be unlikely to happen during the regular school day.
This is the classic choice between first and second order change. Often, SECD-minded school personnel are so thrilled that they can deliver any SECD systematically that they jump at the after school opportunity. But it's important to be clear about the mechanism of change that goes along with after-school-only SECD programs. In essence, the model is that if these children continue to struggle despite getting SECD, it's either the fault of an ineffective program or children who are unable or unwilling to learn. But the real reasons for failure are otherwise.
In our experience at the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, SECD efforts ultimately must help recipients become more connected to their school environment. It's essential to ensure continuity between after-school programming and the school culture and context, to create a coherent ecological connection for students.
There must be a systematic method by which students can translate what they learn after-school into in-school success via their relationships, and their individual level academic outcomes.
Typically, after-school programs are disconnected from in-school curricula, often delivered by individuals who are not present and salient for the children they are working with during the regular school day. The skills that the students learn after school are often not elicited or reinforced, and the language of skill development is often not part of the shared language of the schools.
After-school programs for academic enrichment, on the other hand, typically have explicit continuity and linkage to the in-school curriculum. A recent, important article sums up the situation well:
To scale school-based approaches, they must become integral to the daily lives of children. This requires that teachers be the front lines of intervention.*
SECD is as important for all students as their math and reading skills, and especially so for at-risk learners. When we allow SECD to get relegated to after-school programs only, we inadvertently reinforce the idea that SECD is secondary, we sign on to a child-centered "program" perspective for building skills, and we participate in conditions in which the SECD effort, even if an evidence-based program, is unlikely to be successful.
*Reference: "School-based strategies to prevent violence, trauma, and psychopathology: The challenges of going to scale." Development and Psychopathology 23, p. 418 (2011). Aber, L., Brown, J., Jones, S, Berg, S., & Torrentea, C.